Whether you’re writing a blog post, creating digital illustrations, or editing a video, it can feel “productive” to stare at a blank screen until a brilliant idea comes to you. But in many cases, creatives will do nothing but stare at a blank project or document, agonizing over where to begin, until they decide that it’s high time for an afternoon Netflix break.
Sure, creatives need to be creative to do their best work. But there are a few productivity tools for creative people that can keep you on track, even when you can’t figure out where to begin.
What Is Creative Productivity?
Good question, right? After all, even experienced creatives suffer from Blank Page Syndrome. But as real as this challenge is, author, entrepreneur, and creative productivity expert Thomas Frank says there are three pillars to productivity for creatives that can help you build repeatable systems anytime you need to start (or complete) a project:
- A professional mindset. Waiting for inspiration to strike before doing your work is an amateur mindset, Frank says. Creative professionals, on the other hand, work on a schedule and are disciplined.
- Your physical and digital workspace. Laptops enable us to work from anywhere we’d like. But Frank suggests that to do your best work, it’s critical to tailor your environment for creativity and productivity. Unfortunately, that means working from your couch with Netflix on as “background noise” is probably not advised.
- Collaboration and delegation. Creatives tend to be possessive over their work, but everyone needs help sometimes. Frank says that if you want to take your creative work (and business) to the next level, you’ll need to learn how to delegate.
This gives us a pretty good foundation for the idea of productivity for creatives. Now we’ll get into some more specific productivity tips for artists. Some of these productivity tools for creative people include specific apps and tools, while others will only require a (digital) pen and pad.
5 Tools and Tips for Creatives
1. Create Tasks for Each Step of Your Project
I’m a writer and content marketer, which means that most of my work looks like… this blog post. The first and only task is to write that post, right? Not exactly.
I built out a sample Trello board to show you how many steps go into a “simple” blog post like this one. You can use any project management tool you like—even if that’s just the Notes app on your phone. But here’s what a project outline typically looks like for me:
OK, that’s just the board. And admittedly, this is a dumbed-down example. But this is a really important step for me as a writer—and for any creative professional.
Now let’s get into the weeds of how a writer might think through just one blog post by creating a card in Trello.
Outlining the project takes just a few minutes, and it’s a great way to center myself before I put pen to paper. It’s also in line with Frank’s suggestion to get into a professional mindset.
2. Don’t Skip the Brainstorm and Outline Process
OK, we’ve talked about outlining the project details. Now let’s talk about outlining the actual project.
Sometimes I try to skip right to the writing process, which is usually a disaster. But every time I create an outline for a new piece, I’m floored by how easily the first draft comes out. This can just be a simple Google doc—below, you’ll see an example of a fairly extensive set of show notes for a podcast that I published last year.
If you’re more of a visual thinker, check out Scapple, a mind mapping app. While it’s geared mainly towards writers, it’s also a great way for any creative to get thoughts down on a digital piece of paper and connect them.
There are endless ways to brainstorm and outline. Choose the one that works best for you—but ultimately, make sure to choose one. Sure, you’d rather just think about creating something awesome. But as you’ll eventually find, this simple tip is one of the most critical productivity tools for artists.
3. Create an Ugly Draft
When we were in elementary school, our teachers urged us to create first drafts to get our thoughts down on paper. If your teachers were like mine, your first drafts were never graded. But at some point in history, we forgot that lesson and started putting pressure on ourselves to make the first draft the best draft.
Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, suggested a new term for this stage: The Ugly Draft.
It’s hard to say, “Hey I’m just going to get something down, even if I hate it.” But I’ve found it to be one of my favorite productivity tools for artists. Although she says that the Ugly First Draft isn’t a pass to produce substandard work, Handley argues that it is a necessary part of the process of creating above-standard work.
Here’s an example of one I put together, which recently appeared on Skillshare’s blog in much better condition:
That’s a lot of self-editing. But It’s often easier to edit a project that contains bad work than it is to create something from scratch. It would be prudent of me to once again reinforce that these productivity tips for artists aren’t an excuse to create bad work, but give it a try. You’ll be amazed by how much inspiration you’ll get from your ugly draft—and how much motivation you’ll get to clean up the junk you’ve created.
4. Create Boundaries for Yourself (and Your Work)
Considering that many of us are working from home with an endless number of uncontrollable variables keeping us from our desks, these might sound like ridiculous creative productivity tools. But with the current state of the world and our home lives, it’s important to set the boundaries you need to do your best work.
There are a few things that enable me to do quality work under these strange circumstances, and many of these tactics will probably remain post-Covid times:
- Establish working hours and norms. My former colleague Ted Goas recently wrote about the nuances of working hours and the importance of setting them. This is just as important when you work on your own. It’s up to you to determine how many hours per day you’ll dedicate to your craft, and you might need to switch them around, but do your best to create that guardrail for yourself.
- Close the (hypothetical) door. I’ve been guilty of convincing myself that I can work while watching TV—but some of my worst work was due in large part to planting myself in front of Nailed It. If you don’t have the luxury of an office, carve out a corner of your living room that’s for work only.
- Be honest about what you can take on. It’s hard to turn opportunities down, but one of the most important creative productivity tools I can share is to avoid piling onto your workload when you’re at capacity. This might mean a slight hit to your bank account, but the added stress of one too many projects will ultimately hinder your productivity and creativity.
5. Be Kind to Yourself
Everything we’ve discussed so far is ideal for staying on track while trying to do great creative work. And while there are several things that you can do to increase your productivity as a creative, it’s important to know when you need to take a break.
We’ve all been there. A looming deadline on a project. A lack of inspiration. A midnight coffee run followed by a 2 a.m. coffee run. And sure, there are going to be times when you’ll need to power through because there’s a paycheck on the line. But the systems and tools we’ve discussed here should give you more space throughout a project to say, “You know what, I think I need a break this afternoon.”
Should these breaks last forever? No. But should you give yourself zero flexibility to take them when you’re emotionally exhausted and can’t do anything? Also no.
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